Being able to identify microbes in real-time aboard the International
Space Station, without having to send them back to Earth for
identification first, would be totally amazing for the world of
microbiology and space exploration.
in Space 3 team turned that possibility into a reality this year,
when it completed the first-ever sample-to-sequence process entirely aboard the
The ability to identify microbes in space could aid in the
ability to diagnose and treat astronauts in real time, as well as assisting in
the identification of life on other planets. It could also benefit other
experiments aboard the space station.
SCIENCE HINT: Identifying microbes involves isolating the
DNA of samples, and then amplifying – or making lots and lots (and LOTS)
of copies – of that DNA that can then be
sequenced, or identified.
As part of regular
monitoring, petri plates were touched to various surfaces of the space station.
NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson transferred cells
from growing bacterial colonies on those plates into miniature test tubes,
something that had never been done before in space (first OMG moment!).
Once the cells were successfully collected, it was time to
isolate the DNA and prepare it for sequencing, enabling the identification of
the unknown organisms – another first for space microbiology.
Enter Hurricane Harvey. *thunder booms*
“We started hearing the reports of Hurricane Harvey the
week in between Peggy performing the first part of collecting the sample and
gearing up for the actual sequencing,” said Sarah Wallace, the project’s
When our Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston became
inaccessible due hurricane conditions, Marshall
Space Flight Center’s Payload
Operations Integration Center in Huntsville, Alabama worked
to connect Wallace to Whitson using Wallace’s personal cell phone.
With a hurricane wreaking havoc outside, Wallace and Whitson set out to
The data were downlinked to the team in Houston for
analysis and identification.
“Once we actually got the data on the ground we were able
to turn it around and start analyzing it,” said Aaron Burton, the project’s
co-investigator. “You get all these squiggle plots and you have to turn that
into As, Gs, Cs and Ts.”
Those As, Gs, Cs and Ts are more than just a nerdy alphabet – they are
Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine and Thymine – the four bases that make up each
strand of DNA and can tell you what organism the strand of DNA came from.
“Right away, we saw one microorganism pop up, and then a
second one, and they were things that we find all the time on the space
station,” said Wallace. “The validation of these results would be when we got
the sample back to test on Earth.”
Soon after, the samples returned to Earth aboard the Soyuz
spacecraft, along with Whitson.
With the samples now in the team’s JSC lab, tests were
completed in ground labs to confirm the findings from the space station. They
ran the tests again and again, and then once more, to confirm accuracy. Each
time, the results were exactly the same on the ground as in orbit. (second OMG moment!)
“We did it. Everything worked perfectly,” said Sarah Stahl,
This capability could change future space exploration.
“As a microbiologist,” said Wallace, “My goal is really so
that when we go and we move beyond ISS and we’re headed towards Mars or the
moon or wherever we are headed to, we have a process that the crew can have
that great understanding of the environment, based on molecular technology.”
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